Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

November 21–28, 1996

critical mass|reviews


The Three Willies

Painted Bride Art Center, Nov. 14-17.

Any black male, no matter what his status, is a suspect — not just in the eyes of the law but in the eyes of society at large, the black community included.

That's a primary premise of The Three Willies, a multimedia jazz opera which premiered at the Painted Bride Art Center last week. A collaborative project of Homer Jackson, Leroy Jenkins and Rennie Harris, the piece peers into the living room of a black family and onto the set of a TV newsroom.

The storyline revolves around three generations of a family in which the men feel put upon and the mother just wants them all to love each other and themselves. A side story concerns Billy Bradley, a successful TV newscaster. In between the family scenes, Bradley announces the news: the stock market is at an all-time low, an ambassador has been abducted, there's a tropical storm brewing. But the big story is Willie Horton.

Horton, of course, was a black man given a life sentence for murder who was allowed to go on weekend furloughs, thanks to a prison release program enacted by 1988 presidential candidate and then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. While on leave, Horton raped a woman. The incident became the subject of several Bush campaign commercials, which are credited with having put the kibosh on the Dukakis presidential run.

Those commercials are projected on a big screen that periodically drops from the ceiling throughout The Three Willies. Afterwards, a series of black male faces flashes on the screen: they're the same as the men in the family. The point is clear: because of their race, all black men are seen as potential Willie Hortons.

There are subplots: the youngest in the family, a teenager named WeeWee, has fathered a child which he won't accept responsibility for. Family secrets are revealed about an uncle in prison. There are acting, singing and movement-based segments. The stage set looks like a living room with a big TV in the center and several television monitors around the perimeter. The TVs all show the same video — a looped tape of violent scenes from cartoons, cop shows and other programs. An avant-garde score of blues-based jazz is performed live. The music is dissonant, taut and filled with tense moments. Written and conducted by Jenkins, it's a compelling and fitting accompaniment to the action.

One of the more inspired and unconventional devices of The Three Willies is the role of WeeWee. It's played by four actors — a brilliant way to convey the idea that black men feel they must be different people within the same body to deal with life's varied circumstances. Actors and musicians all perform their parts well, with standouts being Forrest McClendon in the role of newsman Bradley, Clyde Evans as one of the WeeWees, and Julia Lopez, heard only on tape, as the woman having WeeWee's baby. Harris' movement is finely designed. Jackson's contributions — libretto, audio, video and set design — are clever and artful.

There are some subtle moments. However, the main message of The Three Willies is blasted loudly, many times over. Admittedly, it's a message that needs to be heard. But I fear the repetition actually makes the point less potent. After seeing the Horton commercials numerous times, you don't listen to them anymore. Likewise for the men's complaints. Perhaps that's the idea, that no one hears the black man's voice, no matter how loud and strong and often it's voiced. Still, one suspects a little less browbeating would get that point across more effectively.

Deni Kasrel

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